Analysis

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Last Updated on September 16, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 346

The first thing the reader will notice at the beginning of The Back Room is that memories, dreams, imagination, and reality are all equally mysterious. To put it in another way, they are all interpretations of our experiences in the universe. The protagonist does not know whether the stranger, a male journalist, is a product of repressed memories, a dream she is having at that moment, a character from her fiction that has manifested in reality, or a real person. The fact that the mysterious figure is a journalist gives the reader a hint that he might be a representation of the protagonist's subconscious.

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In Freudian terms, the journalist symbolizes the protagonist's id, while the protagonist herself is the super-ego. The id is the primitive part of one's mind, where sexuality, aggression, and animal instincts reside. The super-ego and ego are our consciousness. This is evident in the type of questions the journalist asks the protagonist and the protagonist's responses. She talks about her repressed memories, which were buried during Franco's era and in the conservative Spanish society of the time. She also talks about the writing process.

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These could be read as examples of consciousness talking to repressed memories, or the subconscious, in order to form a psychological bridge that would help the protagonist make sense of the world around her and become honest with herself. The title itself is a reference to the subconscious part of our mind; it is a back room in the architecture of the brain.

The fact that the protagonist talks about her writing at length—an act of self-indulgence and narcissism—is possibly another hint that the protagonist is a representation of the super-ego or ego. The journalist, or id, is the source of the protagonist's repressed memories and therefore also the source of her imagination, which is the foundation of her entire writing process. The social and political commentary in the book may seem out of place at first glance but is actually related, for the protagonist's repressive and turbulent society is the root of her inner turmoil.

The Back Room

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2042

Carmen Martín Gaite is one of a group of Spanish women novelists who began writing in the period about ten or fifteen years after 1939, the year that marked the end of the Spanish Civil War and the triumph of Francisco Franco’s Fascist government. Of this group, which includes Carmen Laforet, Dolores Medio, and Ana María Matute, Martín Gaite was perhaps the most immediately successful. In 1954, her first novel, El balneario won the prestigious fiction prize awarded by the Café Gijón, the traditional gathering place of Madrid’s artistic intelligentsia. Three years later, Entre visillos received the Premio Nadal, and in 1962, her novel Ritmo lento was the runner-up for the coveted Premio Biblioteca Breve. During that period of prolific writing, she published in 1960 a collection of short stories, Las ataduras (attachments), which bears the same title as the popular novel published years later by the American writer Judith Rossner. It is a curious coincidence, for the fiction of Martín Gaite is dominated by the same feminist concerns that characterize Rossner’s work.

In the male-dominated Spanish society of the 1950’s and 1960’s, Martín Gaite’s success was aided to some extent by the fact that she was married to Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, himself a noted novelist and winner of the Premio Nadal. After the publication of Ritmo lento, Martín Gaite abandoned fiction and turned to scholarly research and writing. She published first a history of an eighteenth century literary inquisition and then her doctoral dissertation in Romance philology at the University of Madrid on the courtship habits of eighteenth century Spaniards. During the 1960’s, she also published articles in the most prestigious literary and cultural journals of Spain, articles which were later collected in La búsqueda de interlocutor y otras búsquedas.

In 1974, Martín Gaite returned to her exploration in fiction of the significance of being a woman in Spain: Retahílas is the story of a young girl’s attempts to escape the web of submission that binds Spanish women. In 1978, Martín Gaite published El cuarto de atrás (The Back Room), for which she received the important Premio Nacional de Literatura. The translation, done by Helen R. Lane with the polish and elegance that she has bestowed on the works of other contemporary Spanish novelists, is the first of Martín Gaite’s works to appear in English and is part of a series initiated in 1983 by Columbia University Press to publish translations of contemporary Continental fiction.

One of the most significant facts about Martín Gaite’s novel is that it is her first work of fiction after the death of Franco, her first novel in the post-censorship era. The Back Room is a synthesis of evocations of memories of the narrator’s life and of the narrator’s earlier fictional works. Because the remembered episodes correspond so closely to the details of Martín Gaite’s life—indeed, Martín Gaite and the narrator share the same first name, Carmen—and because the fictional works attributed to the narrator bear the titles of Martín Gaite’s own novels, The Back Room is dominated by an autobiographical tone. The back room of the title is a metaphor for her place of retreat and escape, and this fictional narrator-novelist takes refuge in that haven from the world to explore the significance of the episodes of her past, a significance that until this period of free expression could not be addressed.

This new freedom embraces not only liberation from the strictures of the Franco era, but also freedom from the tyranny of social norms, and particularly from the sex-role stereotyping that characterized the society in which Martín Gaite was trained and educated. The enormous changes that took place in Spain and throughout the Western world during the period of Martín Gaite’s retreat from fictional writing are reflected here in The Back Room, in the form of revaluations not only of her autobiographical narrator’s historical life, but also of her fictional inventions.

The stimulus for the narrator’s introspection is a visit from a mysterious man in a black hat. The man knows her literary work by heart and possesses an extraordinary ability to criticize her fiction and elicit from her the most intimate details of her life. Early in the interview, he identifies the essential fact of her literary activity—that it is a refuge, a sort of “back room” of her existence. Through the emphasis that Martín Gaite gives to the unconscious motivation of her narrator’s literary work, she creates an interesting parallel between this fiction—the novel The Back Room as a Martín Gaite novel—and the novels of Carmen, the protagonist-narrator. In each case—the fictional and the historical—the novelist becomes aware of the evasion of reality disguised as a creative impulse. This moment, however—the moment of the fictional narrator’s introspection and the moment of the historical Martín Gaite’s creation of The Back Room—is a time of confronting the truth of existence and reworking the literary expressions of the past.

As Martín Gaite creates the novel, the hidden truth emerges. As the narrator creates her introspective narrative, her truth emerges, not only in her spoken words but also in the stack of typed pages that mysteriously grows and grows on the table beside the strange interlocutor in black. When the narrator begins to read those pages the next morning, wondering what became of the man in black, the text corresponds exactly to the text of Martín Gaite’s novel The Back Room.

Here, the novelist makes use of a narrative trick that has become rather common in twentieth century Hispanic fiction. One of the assumptions of fictional narrative has always been that the narrator does not write, but tells a story. The written text exists only because that is the convenient way—or perhaps the only way—to relay to the audience the oral narrative that is the story. In certain types of fiction, however, such as the epistolary novel, the text represents a written text in the fictional world. In fiction such as The Back Room, the text seems to be a report of an oral narrative up to a certain point—in this case, to the very end of the book. When Carmen reads the typewritten manuscript and realizes that her experience has somehow been transformed into written text, the reader realizes that the novel is the manuscript that Carmen is reading. The implication, then, is that the narrator’s experience related in the novel has been in fact one and the same with her experience of writing the manuscript.

If this is true, it is certainly a mysterious, fantastic process. The novel becomes a personal memoir typical of autobiographical fiction within the framework of an episode typical of the fantastic novel. For obvious reasons, The Back Room is dedicated to Lewis Carroll, “who still consoles us for being so sensible and welcomes us into his world turned topsy-turvy.” It also contains a number of references to Tzvetan Todorov’s work in the genre of fantastic fiction. The narrator is reminded several times during her strange experience with the man in the black hat of Todorov’s observation that “the time and space of supernatural life are not the time and space of daily life.” Alice is able to experience the topsy-turvy world of Wonderland precisely because she allows it to happen, and Martín Gaite’s narrator pursues her interview with the mysterious visitor with an openness that surprises and pleases her. As she does, the meaning of her past experience and fictional expressions of experience begin to make sense to her.

Todorov, in Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970; The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 1973), identifies three essential elements in successful fantastic fiction. The reader must consider the world portrayed in the fiction to be real; the reader and the narrator are not certain whether what they perceive derives from commonly held perceptions of reality; and there is no attempt in the fiction to explain the unexplainable through an allegorical interpretation. Only if these elements persist can the necessary balance of total faith and total incredulity be maintained. Carmen the narrator has read Todorov and has promised herself that she will write a fantastic novel. In fact, she is struggling with the first few pages when she receives the call from the mysterious man in the black hat. The episode that follows, constituting the novel, is perfect Todorovian fantastic fiction. The perfect interlocutor appears in the middle of the night, keeping a date that the narrator never made. A woman calls, claiming to have read the letters that the narrator wrote to the man in the black hat, letters that Carmen did not write but wishes that she had.

The theme of the writing of fiction as a means of evading reality and retreating into solitude is constant throughout this novel. The writing of the fantastic novel, paradoxically, is the moment of confronting reality, although it seems that this kind of writing would represent the greatest escape. The encounter with the mysterious man, whose presence cannot be explained rationally, evokes painful memories. Most of those memories reveal the pattern of escape that has characterized the existence of the narrator—refuge in the back room of her childhood home, flights into the unreality of children’s fantasies, complete immersion in her work. This confrontation with a supernatural event, however, liberates her from her own evasions, in much the same way that the death of Franco liberated her from the old patterns of antifeminist social norms and state-imposed censorship.

Throughout this novel, the narrator is aware that even though her experience has been conditioned by those societal forces, she has reinforced them by her acquiescence to the kind of world in which she has lived. The strange events that occur toward the end of the novel—the telephone call from the woman who claims to have read the letters and the interruption by a man identified only as Rafael—disrupt to some extent the flow of The Back Room. Suddenly, the tone of the narrative changes, and the novel seems less effective than it did before. This disruption, however, is important to the significance of this fantastic, autobiographical memoir. The text does not offer any interpretation of these events, as Todorov suggests that it should not. The woman on the telephone encourages the narrator to reject the man in the black hat, and Rafael berates the woman for her relationship with the interlocutor. In the irrational experience of this narrative—the experience that in retrospect seems to be the actual writing of the fantastic novel—the woman on the telephone represents the socially restricted personality of the narrator, and Rafael the oppressive masculine influence that she has allowed to determine much of her past experience. The man in the black hat, with his attitude of probing and analyzing, offers the possibility—threatening as it may be—of liberation from an existence the boundaries of which have always been determined by others.

Of the many memories evoked by the interlocutor, the most significant is the image of Carmencita Franco, in mourning, attending the funeral of her father. Surely, only the Spanish can fully understand the meaning of that ceremony; the funeral marked the end of a block of frozen time, a self-contained era that spanned most of the life of Martín Gaite and the women of her generation. Ironically, Carmen the narrator watches the ceremony on television, the vehicle of modern mass culture. Spain and the narrator, on the threshold of the contemporary culture, confront reality with all avenues of escape suddenly closed.

In The Back Room, Martín Gaite has created a profound statement of feminist liberation in a form quite different from that of much of the literature of that contemporary movement. This is a narrative of a woman whose self-discovery comes through the process of rigorous introspection that constitutes her fictional, fantastic text. Thus, Martín Gaite has created a remarkable work of fiction that is a composite of intimate experience and artistic creativity.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 26

Kirkus Reviews. LI, October 1, 1983, p. 1063.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 26, 1983, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, December 11, 1983, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, October 14, 1983, p. 44.

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